Sunday, December 13, 2009


Last week a Grade 12 student asked me to write a mini-essay about "homophobia," so she could read it to her class as part of a project. Here's what I came up with:

I'm wary about telling homophobia-related anecdotes because I don't want to become negative and sensationalistic; my days of sulky victimization are over! We all know that terrible things can happen, but over the years I've become more interested in solutions than retelling my rare moments of drag-related misery.

But even though I feel more at peace with the world than I used to, I don't think it's easy for other people to understand WHY I feel that way. And you can't tackle the roots of homophobia -- let alone discover the ways of combating it -- without looking at specific incidents and coming to some basic conclusions.

So I'll tell you two of my more interesting horror stories, and then I'll share the lessons that those situations taught me.

One way that homophobia manifests itself is a simple "group versus outsider" dynamic. There is something about humanity that feels most confident and secure when it's part of a group, and the simplest way to assert "groupness" is to exclude everybody else. This doesn't always come down to violence -- you can see it happen everywhere, in workplaces or book clubs or patriotic speeches -- but when it involves violence it becomes much more noticeable.

Usually I only have "outsider" dealings with three or four drunk men at a time, but in 2003 I actually faced a mob. It was during the midnight show of the Waterloo Busker Festival. I was wearing a flashy showgirl outfit and watching the buskers with some friends, and about fifteen people in the crowd started to toss pennies at us. When they realized that nobody was going to defend us they got increasingly bold, throwing the coins with full force and finally starting to chant: "Get the fag!" No kidding.

This happened at the edge of a huge crowd of able-bodied, reasonable, and intelligent people. It should never have reached the level that it did, but the reason that we had to run away from a handful of chanting, violent strangers in uptown Waterloo was because NOBODY IN THE CROWD HELPED US. They SAW us and they understood what was happening, but they all looked away, probably frightened.

Here's the first lesson I've learned about homophobia: it only happens if bystanders allow it to. I have been in many other situations where a small group of people have started to get violent with me, but it always stops when a single stranger steps up to defend me. This reverses the "us versus them" belief that is the root of this form of homophobia; when the aggressors suddenly realize that THEY are the outsiders and not ME, it's like popping a big ugly balloon. They retreat and go home and complain to each other and then they throw up.

But if the balloon doesn't pop in the face of public disapproval then something more complicated is at work. I'm talking about the men who hate homosexuality but are simultaneously attracted to me, even though they know I'm a man.

This happens in bars near the end of the night. I suppose that these people can deny their attraction to men in most situations, but they can't deny their attraction to a man in a dress, and this gives them a glimpse of themselves that they don't like at all.

Usually they try to take this anger and confusion out on me in an over-the-top, ironically sexual way, trying to "mock molest" me in front of their friends. This is meant to prove that they're "straight," but their obsessive and bizarre behaviour makes them look even gayer than they're pretending NOT to be.

One extreme incident incident sticks in my mind, though; it was a whole new level. I was sitting on a stool and minding my own business when a huge, hulking guy sat down next to me. He leaned close and said quietly and calmly into my ear: "Watching you looking so good and turning me on like that makes me want to pick up a hammer and kill you."

Then he got right up and left the bar. He was so sober and matter-of-fact that I totally believed what he'd said...and I realized the deep, burning, loathing and hatred that a person can feel for themselves, and how often that loathing can be directed at something or somebody else.

It's a common tactic to enrage homophobes by saying they are secretly homosexual themselves, but in some cases I know this is true, especially when their derision is sexualized. Their feelings are composed of some terrible combination of self-loathing, panic, public shame, and thwarted affection. Society and the sick people in it must work REALLY HARD to instill those sorts of feelings in a doesn't "just happen." Fortunately I think it happens less and less, and that can only be a good thing for everybody.

One final point I'd like to make is that there is a difference between "homophobia" and "confusion." The vast majority of encounters that I have are with people who simply don't "get it," not because they HATE me, but because they've never MET somebody like me...they want to know "why," and they ask blunt questions, and they giggle a bit. If I were to label their attitude as "homophobia" then I would approach them differently, but as it is I try to be friendly and honest. I never JUSTIFY what I do, but I'll still EXPLAIN it.

Granted, the way people confront crossdressers is different from the way they confront lesbians or gay men who aren't in drag, but by learning to tell the difference between confusion and homophobia, between curiosity and cruelty, I have made friends and allies instead of enemies. Maybe I can do this now because I'm comfortable enough about myself that I can make other people comfortable too, as long as their intentions are even remotely good.

That's why I'm wary of sharing sensationalistic anecdotes: because even though it's important to know how bad things can be out there, it is equally important for me to remember that the vast majority of people really DON'T want to hurt me. Most of them are simply INTERESTED in me. That says something good about people, and I try to always keep it in mind when I'm out in the world.


Gary said...

I'm writing a little out of my zone here, but what you said about the actions of crowds rings a bell. In these situations, a quote helps; the one that comes to mind is:

"All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

As you've observed, crowd and mob behavior seems to feed on itself, and its direction (for the good, or for the bad) seems determined by the first few pushes it receives from instigators of either stripe.

(An aside: I always think of the crowd in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" when they begin to stone the loser - before I realized that this mob's behavior was predestined.)

Let's face it, you are doing something that is interesting, but - in the wrong situation/amidst the wrong crowd - it's dangerous. That's the risk of expresing oneself in the public arena. So I guess they don't call it the "arena" for nothing, if you catch the refs that word has to spectacle, and sometimes cruelty and bloodshed.

I don't know that the attitudes you've encountered will ever change. So, like they said on Hill Street Blues, "Be careful out there!"

And remember, strength in numbers - have some in the crowd aleady on your side from the beginning, if that's practical in your case.

As to the last situation, I guess that remaining friendly and explaining how things are is the best policy.

And thanks for the positive-outlook-on-humanity wrapup, considering how badly some encounters have gone.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

That's an excellent point about the word "arena." I've always known that I'm in an arena, but initially I didn't care what happened in it. Sadly it's difficult to diffuse a situation when you're being victimized in an arena -- you just have to run -- but it's possible to do so one-on-one.

I really am positive about human encounters! Maybe I've just always been lucky, but I've seen enough to suspect that people are -- at their best -- good people.